What Happens When You Teach Parents to Parent?

A new working paper (abstractPDF) by Paul Gertler, James Heckman, and several other co-authors examines the impressive long-term effects of a Jamaican program that taught low-income parents better parenting skills.  Here’s the abstract:

We find large effects on the earnings of participants from a randomized intervention that gave psychosocial stimulation to stunted Jamaican toddlers living in poverty. The intervention consisted of one-hour weekly visits from community Jamaican health workers over a 2-year period that taught parenting skills and encouraged mothers to interact and play with their children in ways that would develop their children’s cognitive and personality skills. We re-interviewed the study participants 20 years after the intervention. Stimulation increased the average earnings of participants by 42 percent. Treatment group earnings caught up to the earnings of a matched non-stunted comparison group. These findings show that psychosocial stimulation early in childhood in disadvantaged settings can have substantial effects on labor market outcomes and reduce later life inequality.

The program worked through three primary channels: it “increased maternal investment in children during the intervention period,” positively affected “schooling, cognitive development, and psychosocial development,” and increased the likelihood of participant migration to the U.S. or U.K. where participants could “gain[ed] access to higher quality schools and better labor markets.”  The authors also pointed out that the effects of the Jamaican program were substantially larger than the documented effects of U.S. programs such as Perry Preschool and Head Start.

Adam Stober

Any estimate of the program's ROI?

If the (2 year) cost of the program "pays for itself" X times (over a child's lifetime), the economic case for these programs would be airtight. The children could theoretically repay the cost of the investment themselves.


1 Hour per week for 2 years is (drumroll) 104 hours of intervention time. A typical worker might work 2000 hours per year (surely in a developing nation like Jamaica this fluctuates wildly but let's peg that for now) and if during those 2000 hours they earn 42% more, it is like saying they earn the same as someone working 1408 hours. A nearly 600 hour productivity gain *per productive year*, for 104 hours of investment? Sounds like a pretty astounding win.


" and if during those 2000 hours they earn 42% more, it is like saying they earn the same as someone working 1408 hours" - That was really clumsy wording, let me try again: in 1408 hours, a person from the intervention group earns the same as someone from the non-intervention group who worked 2000 hours. Thus a 592 hour difference (per year) of productivity.


Does it exceed the effects of Headstart because they are teaching the parents how to parent? Having an outside institution provide the nuturing doesn't seem as productive.

Matthew Spaur

What great, and patient, work! It's getting harder and harder for fiscal conservatives to argue with the economic value of investing in early childhood of all families.

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This is about investing in children who are so poor and so poorly cared for that their growth has been stunted. It does not translate to the average middle-class child.

Ryan N

How can you be sure?

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Other research has shown that targeting a small number of mothers in a neighborhood has some positive effects on the neighborhood as a whole, because the treated mother shares what she's learning with the non-treated mothers. It's possible that directly treating 10% or 20% of at-risk children in an area would result in most of them receiving the main benefits.


I don't have any facts to back this up, but I used to work for a parenting group and I saw this phenomenon over and over. As one parent learned new parenting techniques, they would teach their friends- through discussions, modeling, etc.


How interesting! Seems to be applicable to our own reality!


Love the show. I would say check out the literature on behavioral economics and a follow up on John B. Watson and his behaviorism would be great. He and BF Skinner did a ton of great work on behavior analysis and how to make the world a better place, changing behavior through changing the environment. Often times their quotes and works are taken out of context which doesn't lead to an accurate portrayal of the field of behaviorism or behavior analysis. Thanks!